David Kubicek

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Self-Publishing: The Pros and Cons

In the past couple of weeks two newsworthy events have occurred in the self-publishing universe. The first was when, as I reported in an earlier blog, thriller writer Barry Eisler walked away from  a $500,000 advance to self-publish his next novel. The second was when self-published bestselling author Amanda Hocking signed a $2 million four-book deal with St. Martins.

The Hocking deal inspired the post “Advice for Amanda Hocking From Authors and Agents” on book editor Alan Rinzler’s Blog. As the title implies, Rinzler asked several authors and agents to put in their two-cents-worth about whether the deal would help Hocking achieve her main goal, which she said was to concentrate on writing rather than split her time between writing and publishing duties.

I won’t summarize the post here. It is a good one, and I recommend that you read it, especially if you’ve flirted with the idea of self-publishing. But I will make a few comments about some of the pros and cons that were mentioned.

  • The success of any book, whether you publish it yourself or through a traditional publisher, requires that you commit a great deal of your time to promote it. While it is true that publishers may pay for things like book tours, it is also true that not every book will have a hefty promotion budget – or even a small one. That depends on decisions made in the board room. But if an author tells his or her publisher, “I want to concentrate on writing; you handle the promotion,” that author’s book will probably be put on the list for a skimpy promotion budget – if it gets one at all – and may even make the publisher less likely to release future titles from the author.
  • With self-publishing you control the look of your book – the cover art, the cover copy, the book design, etc. But if you’re comfortable leaving those duties to others, traditional publishers generally do fine design work.
  • Traditional publishers have the weight to get their authors wider distribution than if they self-published. To some extent this may be true, especially with printed books; however, services like Smashwords publish books in a variety of digital formats for a variety of digital reading devices. You can buy Smashwords books from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Sony, and Apple. You can even buy them in PDF to read on your computer. That’s a lot of distribution. Plus, any book that has an ISBN number (which Smashwords provides) can be special-ordered, in case you create demand for your book in areas where it isn’t available (this isn’t a problem for e-books).The Moaning Rocks and other stories
  • Self-publishing is faster, which is good if you’re impatient. Most traditionally-published books take at least a year – and may take up to two years – to appear in print. A book published through Smashwords will populate its distribution channels in a matter of weeks.

It may seem as if I’m jumping on the self-publishing bandwagon. That’s not entirely true. Like Amanda Hocking, I would take a traditional publishing deal if it felt right for me; however, also like Hocking, I would not give away the rights to books I had already published, and I would retain the right to self-publishing other books.

It may also seem as if I’m promoting Smashwords. To some extent that may be true. My book, The Moaning Rocks and other stories, is being published by Smashwords because I investigated the company and liked what I saw (and so far I’ve been pleased with my experience). My novel In Human Form will follow shortly. Smashwords is also up-front with writers; they say that although some of their books have sold lots of copies (Amanda Hocking’s among them), some authors haven’t sold a single book. It all comes down to how well the author can promote his or her work and how good of a writer he or she is.

But that’s true of traditional publishing as well.

Learning To Swim: A Review

Learning to Swim: A NovelLearning to Swim: A Novel by Sara J. Henry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Learning to Swim begins when freelance writer Troy Chance sees a child plummet from the deck of a passing ferry into Lake Champlain. Instinctively, she dives in and saves him, then begins the long swim back to shore.

The child, who speaks only French, tells Troy his name is Paul. Other than that she manages only to get sketchy information from him. He tells her he was kidnapped and held in a room somewhere, and that the kidnappers shot his mother.

Troy becomes attached to Paul and, instead of going to the police right away, uses her internet researching skills to do some preliminary investigating of her own. She wants to find out to her satisfaction that the boy will be safe if she turns him over to the authorities and he’s returned home. She wants to make sure the father wasn’t involved in his abduction.

Her investigation leads her into deeper involvement with Paul and his father and puts her under suspicion of a local detective who thinks she had something to do with Paul’s initial disappearance.

After an attempt on Troy’s life, she really hits the investigation trail, determined to find the two men who kidnapped Paul. But what she stumbles into is a twist that I never saw coming.

Learning to Swim is Sara J. Henry’s debut novel. It is a relationship story as well as a mystery, and on both levels it succeeds very well. I highly recommend it.

Visit Sara J. Henry’s blog at Sara in Vermont.

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Thriller Writer Barry Eisler Turns Down Half Million Deal to Self-Publish

As little as a decade ago self-publishing was a stigma. The industry and the public viewed it as something one did out of desperation, when one could not get one’s books published by traditional means.

In the past few years, particularly with the growing popularity of e-books, that has been changing. And now thriller writer Barry Eisler, author of the popular John Rain novels, has given self-publishing a tremendous boost. Eisler turned down Minotaur’s $500,000 offer for two books and plans to self-publish his next novel as an e-book because, he said, he believes in the long  run self-publishing will be more financially lucrative.

In a conversation with self-publishing guru Joe Konrath, Eisler talks about his reasons for his decision. It’s a lengthy conversation but well worth the time for anyone who is considering self-publishing.

Net Neutrality: Congressional Panel Votes to Repeal New FCC Rules

A Republican-controlled House panel has voted to repeal the new FCC rules that would prevent cable and phone companies from dominating the Internet by setting priorities for web traffic. This would result in slower load times for competing services and for smaller websites that can’t afford to pay to have their priorities upgraded. It would be a major blow for free speech on the Internet, with a few major communications companies dictating what websites the rest of us are allowed to access. We could, technically, still access any websites we wanted, but we would become frustrated with the long wait times and click on to something more “user-friendly.”

The reason for repealing this rule, according to the Republicans, is that it would prevent the big cable companies from making costly upgrades to their networks. That is not true. We have had net neutrality since the Internet was opened to commercial traffic in the mid-1990s; it hasn’t prevented the big communications companies from upgrading during that time, and it’s unlikely that making net neutrality the law now will prevent them from making future upgrades. If they want to be competitive, they’ll upgrade. That’s the way it’s always been in business, even before the Internet, and that’s the way it will always be.

For a more detailed look at the panel’s decision see the Huffington Post article.

Under the Dome: Trapped in a Stephen King Nightmare

Under the DomeUnder the Dome by Stephen King

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this novel for more than a year because it is massive, 1,074 pages in hardcover. But I may have temporarily forgot that Under The Dome was written by Stephen King, who, in his own words, likes to write with “the pedal to the metal.”

Under The Dome has all the earmarks of a Stephen King novel: violence, massive destruction, sexuality (much of it perverted), and a deliciously depraved villain. It also has a cast of characters so large that King lists the main ones (in categories, no less) at the front of the book for easy reference. He also gives us a map of Chester’s Mill, Maine (the sock-shaped town, population 2,000, where the story takes place) showing the major landmarks in the novel.

The hero is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a disillusioned ex-army officer (he has been the cook at the Sweetbriar Rose restaurant for the past few months) who is on his way out of town when the Dome comes down. I won’t tell you what the dome is or why it comes down. Suffice it to say that Barbie is trapped, which is inconvenient. He was leaving because of bad blood between him and some of the town’s young punks, particularly Junior Rennie, the son of Big Jim Rennie, used car dealer and one of the town’s three selectmen.

Big Jim uses the dome to assert his leadership. The town needs a leader to keep order now that it is cut off from the rest of the world, and why shouldn’t that leader be Big Jim? The only problem is that Barbie manages to get a call out to his former commander, Colonel Cox, who promotes him to Colonel and puts him in charge of the situation.

This doesn’t sit well with Big Jim as he embarks upon his mission to take over the town with the help of his “special” police officers. These are the town thugs who will do what Big Jim tells them, using whatever force is necessary (or even unnecessary) to keep the citizenry in line. Barbie and the friends he’s made since coming to town are the major obstacles in the way of Big Jim’s goal. They must be silenced, discredited, and/or killed to prevent them from interfering with Big Jim’s plans. He implements those plans through deceit, general skullduggery and even murder to turn the townspeople against Barbie and, as King calls them, the expatriates.

Under The Dome may be a massive novel, but it is a page-turner, right up though the electrifying climax and conclusion. I highly (double highly) recommend it.

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True Grit: Two Movies and a Novel

True GritTrue Grit by Charles Portis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I was a fan of the John Wayne movie based on this novel, I’d never read the book before. When the latest film incarnation with Jeff Bridges was released, I dug up a copy of the novel and read it before going to see the movie.

The critics were right. The Coen brothers version does follow the novel more closely than the first movie, particularly in some key spots that I won’t tell you about. I hate giving things away.

There is, however, one major section where the story departs from the book, and I can’t figure out why. There is no reason structurally or story-wise that it should be changed (even the John Wayne version followed the novel here). I won’t tell you which part it is, either. But it really doesn’t make that big of difference. It’s just odd, and I actually do like the Jeff Bridges True Grit better than the John Wayne version. And Matt Damon, who plays LaBoeuf in the Coen brothers version, is a better actor than Glen Campbell. Sorry, Glen. Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Mattie Ross, also gives a commendable performance in her first major motion picture role.

Enough prattling about the movies. The book is an easy and an enjoyable read with strong characters and action. It is one of those genre novels that rises above its genre. I highly recommend it.

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Full Dark, No Stars: Stephen King at his Best

Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Full DarFull Dark, No Starsk, No Stars is a collection of four novellas that delve into the darker regions of the human psyche.

  • In “1922,” Nebraska farmer Wilfred James murders his wife to prevent her from selling her land, which lies adjacent to their farm – and to carry out his brutal crime he enlists the help of his teenage son.
  • In “Big Driver,” Tess, a mild-mannered writer, is brutally attacked and left for dead, and she hatches a plot to seek revenge on those responsible.
  • “Fair Extension” is a deal with the devil story Stephen King style.
  • And in “A Good Marriage,” Darcy Anderson discovers, after 27 years of marriage and two children, that her accountant husband Bob has been a serial killer since before they met.

If you like Steven King’s novels, you’ll like Full Dark, No Stars. King is a master of the shorter form. I highly recommend this collection.

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Self-Publishing: Is it for You?

For perhaps as long as publishing has existed self-publishing has been stigmatized. The terms “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” often are used interchangeably. They are not interchangeable. We’ll get to that shortly. For now, here are a few writers, established writers, who have self-published some of their own work:

  • Willa Cather, author of such novels as My Antonia and the Pulitzer Prize-winning One of Ours, paid to publish her first book.
  • Early in his career, L. Frank Baum – author of  the Wizard of Oz books – self-published pamphlets on chicken farming.
  • Stephen King published the first installment of his novel The Plant on his Website (http://www.stephenking.com) on July 24, 2000 and the second installment a few weeks later.
  • Tarzan author Edgar Rice Burroughs formed a publishing company which published a variety of books, some of which were his own.
  • Bestselling author Pat Conroy spent thousands of dollars to print and promote his first book, The Boo.
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables, paid to publish his first book.
  • Mark Twain grew tired of the “foolishness” of his publishers, so he self-published The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
  • Edgar Allen Poe – often called the father of the modern short story and the author of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Raven,” and many others – self-published some of his works.
  • Richard Paul Evans self-published 8,000 copies of The Christmas Box, which he later sold to Simon & Schuster for a $4.2 million advance (including the rights to a prequel). Evans even wrote a book about his incredible journey, The Christmas Box Miracle.
  • In 1901, Beatrix Potter self-published 250 copies of  The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The following year, publisher Frederick Warne, who had initially rejected the book, published a commercial edition with color illustrations. Since then, the book has sold more than 40 million copies.
  • Henry David Thoreau self-published Walden in 1854.
  • William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White self-published the writer’s Bible, The Elements of Style.
  • Other famous poets, authors, and playwrights who published some of their own works include:  T.S. Eliot, Lord ByronThomas Hardy, Louis L’Amour, Walt Whitman, Robert James Waller (The Bridges of Madison County), Amanda Brown (Legally Blonde), Stephen Crane, Zane Grey, Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, and George Bernard Shaw.

This list just scratches the surface.

The Pelican in the Desert

The Pelican in the Desert: And Other Stories of the Family Farm, edited by David Kubicek

I have, technically, published some of my own work. In 1988 I established Kubicek & Associates to publish an anthology of farm stories I had collected. The book contained one story I had written, about 3,50o words, and 13 stories by other writers. I thought publishing was cool, so I went on to publish three books by other writers and, in 1989, an anthology of horror stories which also contained one of my own stories (again, about 3,500 words) as well as 19 stories by other writers (including a classic story by Henry Kuttner, originally published in 1939).

October Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Mason

October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, edited by David Kubicek & Jeff Mason

Self-published books differ from vanity published books by being of a higher quality. They achieve that higher quality by going through a similar process as a traditionally published book. A vanity book, on the other hand, is a book that the author considers to be good enough to publish and pays to have it published – there are no checks and balances, no feedback from other reliable sources, and minimal – if any – revision or copy-editing.

Many years ago during my brief stint in publishing, a copy of a self-published novel came across my desk. The author was selling the thing door-to-door with the goal of making enough sales to impress a major publisher, who would then buy the rights and turn it into a bestseller. In the first place, he would have had to sell lots and lots of copies – we’re talking tens of thousands – to impress a major publisher. Second, the writing was horrid. It was the kind of manuscript the garbage collector would reject. That novel was an example of a vanity-published book;  the author thought his book was good, but others didn’t share his opinion.
Not everyone will like your book or your writing. This is true of every writer, including the likes of Stephen King; but whether you like King or not, he does know how to write and he does know how to tell a story that touches the readers’ emotions.
Here are some guidelines that will keep you from falling into the vanity publishing sludge heap, only a few, but they are important:
  • Make sure your work is well written and that others besides yourself like it. Give the manuscript to a few people you trust to give you honest feedback (don’t give it to friends or family members who will choke back their revulsion and tell you what you want to hear). Soon I will be self-publishing a collection of my short stories – some of them have been published previously, but others haven’t. My wife, Cheryl, is reading the manuscript. So far, she’s found two stories that “don’t do anything” for her. Those stories were immediately deleted, deep-sixed, sent to Mr. Recycle Bin.
  • The book must look and feel professional. It must have an attractive cover, well-written and provocative cover copy, and a bar code (if it is a physical book rather than an ebook), etc. You get the picture.
  • A blurb from a reviewer, author, or expert in your field – while not be essential – may lend credibility to your book and help it sell.
Today with inexpensive publishing services like iUniverse  and free services like those offered by Amazon and Barnes & Noble it is much  easier  to self-publish and sell a book than it used to be.
A self-published book is not the stigma it once was. A well-written book that looks profession will be able to hold its own with all of the traditionally published books that are released each year. Keep in mind that you must market your book (if no one hears about it, no one can buy it), and keep your expectations realistic – although you may sell some copies, possibly even a good number of copies, it’s highly unlikely that your self-published book will shoot immediately to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, or even come within rock-throwing distance of that list. Although such things have happened, the authors invested much blood, sweat, and tears to get there.

The Martian Chronicles: An Allegory for the Conquest of a World

The Martian ChroniclesThe Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a young boy,  Ray Bradbury was fascinated with the planet Mars. Many kids – and even many adults – in the early 20th Century were fascinated with Mars. It was our nearest neighbor, coming as close as 35 million miles of Earth. It had green patches that could be vegetation, it had white polar caps (ice?) that appeared to shrink and grow with the seasons, and some astronomers claimed to see lines (straight lines, indicating that they were made by intelligent beings) which they called canals. What a wealth of imagination for young boys – and science fiction writers.

During the 1940s, Bradbury expressed his fascination with Mars in a series of stories, several of which he later collected into The Martian Chronicles (1950). But The Martian Chronicles is more than a collection of related stories. It is an allegory depicting the settlement of a world, obviously paralleling the settlement of the New World by the Europeans, conquering the Native Americans and taming the western wilderness. The novel also depicts the decline of human settlement on Mars. To help this collection of stories work as a novel with a unified theme, Bradbury wrote a number of bridge passages to ease the transition between stories.

I won’t say too much about the plot. For those of you who haven’t read it, I don’t want to give anything away. I wouldn’t call The Martian Chronicles science fiction. Even at the time Bradbury wrote these stories, scientists were pretty much in agreement that the Martian environment was too harsh to support human life. Bradbury never cared much about the science, which is probably why some hard core science fiction readers don’t care for him. He has always been more interested in showing what kind of trouble we can get into if we don’t use technology responsibly. According to Bradbury:

“It is all too easy for an emotionalist to go astray in the eyes of the scientific, and surely my work could never serve as a handbook for mathematicians. Somehow, though, I am compensated by allowing myself to believe that while the scientific expert can tell you the exact size, location, pulse, musculature and color of the heart, we emotionalists can find and touch it quicker.”*

So if you can get past the fudging over the science and enjoy the fantasy/allegorical aspect of The Martian Chronicles, this book has lots to say and is a must read.

*From The Ray Bradbury Companion by William F. Nolan (Detroit: Gale Research, 1975), p. 70.

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The Warmth of Other Suns: The Story of the Great Migration

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lincoln may have freed the slaves in 1863,but that only changed the nature of African Americans’ enslavement in the south. They got paid for their work, but their paychecks were much smaller than the paychecks of white people doing the same type of work–sometimes, as in the case of sharecroppers, they would be lucky to do more than break even, and sometimes they ended up owing the planters whose land they worked. Black people could not vote, they had to step off the sidewalk if a white person was coming, they had to look down when talking to white people, and black men had to be especially careful not to look at white women. Lynchings were commonplace, and no court in the south would convict a white man for killing a black man.

This was the life for freed black people living in the south for more than 100 years, until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s began gathering steam and resulted in key court cases and legislation that eventually killed the Jim Crow laws.

Many African Americans left the south, heading north and west, in search of better lives. Beginning as a trickle about 1915, it soon became a flood and finally petered out about 1975, when southern society was changing enough that blacks didn’t feel that it was urgent for them to leave to seek better lives.

The Warmth of Other Suns is the story of The Great Migration, focusing on three immigrants who took three different routes–George Swanson Starling to New York, Ida Mae Gladney to Chicago, and Robert Pershing Foster to Los Angeles. George Starling left when he got word that he might be lynched, Ida Mae Gladney and her husband George were sharecroppers who wanted a better life, and Robert P. Foster was a surgeon who left so he could practice his profession without restrictions dictated by the color barrier.

But the north was not the land of milk and honey many blacks expected it would be. There was still racial tension and discrimination, but of a different variety, and Wilkerson does a good job of covering the struggles the immigrants had while starting their new lives.

Wilkerson, whose parents migrated from the south and who was the first black woman to win a Pulitzer Prize in journalism (in 1994), spent about 15 years researching this book, conducted more than 1,200 interviews, and retraced the routes taken by Starling, Gladney, and Foster.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a history buff’s dream. It is a readable and informative book about a period that changed the face of this country. I highly recommend it.

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Huckleberry Finn Censorship

Poor Mark Twain. He can’t catch a break.

When The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in 1884, censors banned it because it portrayed the slave Jim as a human being. Today, Twain scholar Alan Gribben and NewSouth books in Alabama have joined forces to publish a combined cleansed

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

version of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. The new edition will replace the N-word (which, by Gribben’s count, appears 219 times in Huck Finn and 4 times in Tom Sawyer) with the word “slave.”

In the first place, I don’t see how “slave” is an improvement over the N-word. Slavery was not a good thing. It was one of the most shameful conditions ever condoned by this government or any government. So one would think that if the N-word was offensive to school children, “slave” would cause its own share of nightmares.

In the second place, to rewrite Twain is to rewrite history, as the Soviet Union used to do. The N-word was commonly used in Twain’s day. If Twain had meant “slave,” he would have used “slave” instead of the N-word. Remember, it was Twain who said: “The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.”

In the third place, the N-word is a teachable moment. It is an opportunity for teachers to talk a little about the time in which the novel was written and why the N-word, although commonly used then, is offensive today.

We can’t escape our history by denying it. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a literary masterpiece. It should be taught as it was written or not taught at all.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A helper monkey made this abstract painting, inspired by your stats.

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 41 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 40 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 7mb. That’s about 3 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was June 4th with 96 views. The most popular post that day was Signing in the Waldenbooks by Parnell Hall.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were mail.yahoo.com, google.com, twitter.com, mail.live.com, and facebook.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for famous jobs, day jobs of famous writers, claudia procula letter, famous author rejections, and “harlan ellison”.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Signing in the Waldenbooks by Parnell Hall June 2010
2 comments

2

Day Jobs of Famous Writers Before They Were Famous June 2010
3 comments

3

Rejections of Famous Authors Before they were Famous April 2010
2 comments

4

Relics of Repentance–The Letters of Pontius Pilate & Claudia Procula, compiled by James F. Forcucci: A Review July 2010
1 comment

5

Unconscious Writing: Putting the Subconscious to Work July 2010
2 comments

Net Neutrality Update

Yesterday, as was widely expected, the FCC passed the new regulations governing the Internet–the same regs that Sen. Al Franken called “worst than nothing.” Newsweek technology editor Dan Lyons in his article The Internet Splits in Two suggests that we’re entering into Phase Two of  Internet technology, which he compares to the growing pains of television – for example, cable vs. rabbit ears. The new regs probably will be challenged in court, and they may be tweaked – or they may not be, which wouldn’t be good for writers, researchers, or for folks with Websites and blogs who can not afford to buy priority placement in the pecking order. As Lyons suggests in his article, which I encourage you to read in full, expect these costs to be passed on to consumers, who will end up paying more for a crappier product. Sen. Al Franken in his Huffington Post article today, The Internet as we Know it is Still at Risk does offer a ray of  hope for the future of Net Neutrality.

To keep up on the Net Neutrality issue: savetheinternet.com.

Net Neutrality: The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time

I’ve written an overview of the Net Neutrality issue in an earlier post, Net Neutrality: Keeping the Internet Free. Tomorrow the FCC will meet to discuss Internet regulations. Senator Al Franken doesn’t believe the draft regulations go far enough. In fact, he calls them “worse than nothing.” Rather than try to summarize what Sen. Franken says, I urge you to read his Huffington Post article, The Most Important Free Speech Issue of Our Time.

Curtis Brown Writing Course: Not Enough Bang for the Buck

Curtis Brown UK will launch a writing course next year, which the agency touts as “the first and only new writing school to be run by a literary agency.” The course – which will run from May 5 to July 21, 2011 – is designed to help “15 talented writers to produce distinctive, compelling novels.”

Although the agency doesn’t guarantee representation of the student’s completed work, it does guarantee that “every student’s work will be read by a Curtis Brown book agent and every student will receive a detailed critique on their work at the end of the course.”

The price of the course is 1,600 Pounds (approximately $2,533 American).

Although it could be argued that because prospective students must apply and be accepted into the program it is not unlike applying to a college and then paying tuition. My problem with this is that writing a novel is not like taking Geology 101. Writing a good novel comes from practice, lots and lots of practice.

It’s unlikely that a person with little or no writing experience could win one of the coveted 15 spots, and a person who can write well enough to be accepted into the program probably is quite far along the road to becoming a successful novelist. I’m sure this course will impart valuable information, but I’m not sure the students will get enough bang for their bucks.

With all of the resources available on the Web and all of the books about writing (Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook are the best I’ve seen) and the writing groups where members give one another honest feedback,  serious writers probably could learn as much as they would if they spend 1,600 Pounds ($2,533 American) to take this course.

Many agents, probably most agents, will give aspiring writers guidelines for revising their novels – if the agents think the novels promising, and salable – and they will do this for free. An agent asked me for revisions on one of my novels. I made the requested revisions, and she offered representation (she couldn’t sell the novel, but that’s another story).

The point I want to leave you with is: develop your craft, built a network, and – unless you are independently wealthy – think long and hard before you put up the price of a halfway decent used car for a writing course.

Editorial Comments: Keep Them in Perspective

When I was a novice writer I lived for editorial comments. Occasionally they came, scrawled on a standard form rejection slip, just a few words to let me know if I was on the right track, if what I was writing was any good. I would bet that most aspiring writers long for that coveted editorial critique.

Receiving editorial comments is great, but keep them in perspective. Fiction editing is a very subjective business, and what one editor doesn’t like, another might rave about.

I’ll give you a few examples from editorial comments I’ve received over the years.

“New Beginnings”

  • “. . .  a fairly enjoyable story, very simple, but enjoyable. But it was also one of those that comes very close to the borderline for acceptance  . . .  ” – Alpha Adventures Science Fiction and Fantasy.
  • “Your story is interesting – a touch of Bradbury – but it just didn’t grab me.” – The Argonaut.
  • “John was right that I like it; unfortunately, it doesn’t fit what I’m trying to do with the magazine.” – Bifrost.

“Keeper of the Shrine”

  • “This is carefully and persuasively written and keeps a reader intent on what’s going on, but in spite of the existential metaphysic it generates we still find ourselves doubting the inferential conclusions it proposes. And we can’t make it all fit together.” – Kansas Quarterly.
  • “It had three readings here, two of which were praising. The third reader suggested you consider [changing]  the title . . . One reader said the story ‘is a little too heavy on the symbolism’ but I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” – Prairie Schooner.

MY NOTES: I took this story back to my Beta Reader, an English Professor at the University of Nebraska. He re-read it, and we decided that I should change the title (“Of Life, Death, and Spiders” seemed a bit pompous), but I shouldn’t touch the symbolism because we believed it was right for a story like this (and apparently two other readers at Prairie Schooner agreed.)

“That Time of Year”

  • “This is a well-written story, and I enjoyed it. However, we are very selective on fiction as we use only two or three pieces per issue.” – Proof Rock.
  • “‘That Time of Year,’ exhibits a good control of the subject matter, but I have to say that we didn’t find the subject matter particularly engaging.” – Pulpsmith.

“The Moaning Rocks”

  • “. . . The blending of legend and impending doom works nicely. Your imagery ranges from trite to splendid. There are moments where you approached Bradbury’s October Country. . . ” Fantasy Macabre.
  • “…May I suggest, too, that you think about putting the information in Maria’s legend in some other way (if it’s really necessary at all), because this is where what happens later is telegraphed. Up until then the suspense holds.” – Shadows Anthology.
  • “[Although we’ve already met our quota for this year] . . . the title intrigued me enough that I read it anyway. The beginning could be tightened up and shortened a bit, which I believe would strengthen it, but even as it is it is a powerful story and perfect for the magazine. If it should still be available in April, please send it back; I’d love to have it.” – Antithesis.

MY NOTES: Unfortunately, by April Antithesis had ceased publication, so the story went out on the submission trail again. It garnered a wide variety of comments – mostly positive, some not, but most editors to whom I submitted commented on it. I  published it finally in October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror. Also, note that Fantasy Macabre liked the “blending of legend and impending doom,” but Shadows wondered if the legend is “really necessary at all” because it “telegraphed” the ending. The part about telegraphing the ending may be true for some readers, but I know of one reader who was so startled by the ending that she threw the book across the room.

Also:

  • My novel In Human Form excited an agent enough that she suggested some rewrites and then offered to represent it [didn’t sell, unfortunately], while the same novel “didn’t grab” other agents.
  • One of my screenplays was optioned recently  [see the News page]. It had been shopped around quite a bit and even received a page-and-a-half critique from the story editor at NBC. One of his concerns was that the dialogue was “somewhat archaic,” which was true, but I had a reason for it, and the screenplay was readable and the dialogue was sayable (yes, I know that’s not a word) and moved the story along, so I didn’t change a word.

The point of all this is that editors are just readers, and stories strike every reader differently. As I hope I’ve illustrated with these editorial comments, one editor may like something about a story while another may dismiss the same thing. It is nice to get editorial comments because they are a window into how others –  particularly, others who read stories for a living – view what you write.

But the best advice was given by the editor of Prairie Schooner in her comments on “Keeper of the Shrine:”  “. . . I assume you’re sufficiently experienced as a writer to understand the comment in context.” If you have any questions about your work in view of an editor’s comment, take it back to your readers – and every writer should have a few readers he or she can trust to give honest feedback – and ask them if they think the the story might be improved if you followed the editor’s advice.

Some things you may choose to change, other things you may choose to leave alone. But take editorial comments in the spirit they are given: as one person’s reaction to your story. The next person’s reaction might be completely different.

Education is a Life-Long Commitment

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” – Ray Bradbury

Contrary to popular belief, having a college degree does not mean you’re educated. A degree is only the beginning of your education, the first tiny step. Education is a lifelong commitment. This is true for everyone but is especially true for writers.

Fortunately, I discovered this when I was in college. About midway through my course of study I took a good look at what I was learning. I was reading lots of books, writing lots of papers, and taking lots of tests. But what I really wanted to learn was how to analyze data and reach conclusions. I wanted to learning how to think. And the curriculum wasn’t helping me accomplish that goal.

I enrolled in the honors program, and under the supervision of a professor in the English Department, I undertook a research project which culminated in a thesis entitled Ray Bradbury: Space Age Visionary. I re-read all of Bradbury’s early work, analyzed it, and drew my own conclusions about it. The project was a good exercise in thinking for myself.

But even the thesis is only a beginning. I consciously made the decision not to pursue a graduate degree because I believed it would hamper my learning. Getting a degree is fine if y0u want to go into a particular line of work, like teaching, engineering, or business, etc. But you don’t need a degree to be a writer – the subject of my thesis, Ray Bradbury, only graduated from high school.

To be a writer you need a curiosity about everything, a hunger to learn how the world works, and a drive to understand people and why they do the things they do. You satiate this hunger by absorbing everything you can, soaking up information like a sponge. Read on a variety of topics, listen to a variety of music, watch films and TV, have new experiences, meet a variety of people, get out of your comfort zone once in a while.

There is an old Chinese parable about obtaining enlightenment – Imagine a palace with a beautiful courtyard. A young man peers through a tiny hole in the door, but he can’t see the whole courtyard at once. In middle-age he looks out on the courtyard through a small window; although he can see more, his view still is hampered. But as an old man he has thrown open the door and stands on the balcony where he can see the entire courtyard and beyond.

This illustrates the learning process throughout our lives; as we expand out horizons, the view becomes more clear.

To paraphrase Bradbury, stuff yourself with everything. The key is to continue to grow for the rest of your life by doing all the things I mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. Don’t become stuck in time; continue to evolve. For writers, you can’t write about life thoroughly unless you strive to understand it – you never will understand it completely, but the important thing is that you continue to expand your world. For everyone else, the non-writers, you need to keep expanding your world or your world will become a cramped, cold place.

To understand our world and to change it for the better we must remember that a formal institution of learning cannot give us an education. Teachers and mentors can point the way, but ultimately we are all responsible for what we learn, and our education is a life-long commitment.

The Earth, My Butt, & Other Big Round Things: A Review

The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round ThingsThe Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an exceptional novel.

It is a character-driven story about 15-year-old Virginia Shreves who feels that she doesn’t fit in – not at school and especially not with her own family. Her mother is an adolescent psychologist who does not practice what she preaches. Her father is a little less rigid, but he’s a high-powered manager.

Both of Virginia’s parents are workaholics and leave her to fend for herself most of the time. She idolizes her older brother – who is a chick magnet – and wishes she were more like her older sister, who has joined the Peace Corps (much to her mother’s chagrin) and is working in Africa.

All of Virginia’s family are dark-haired and thin. Virginia is blond and has a weight problem, due in large part to comfort eating.

Then something devastating happens that changes the entire family dynamic (I won’t tell you what it is; it’s a crucial turning point and best if you discover it for yourselves), and puts Virginia on the road to making major changes in her life.

The characters are well-delineated – especially Virginia, who gets inside your head the way that few characters do. Even the minor characters have their quirks, like Alyssa Wu who knits all the time to keep from fidgeting, and the math teacher Mr. Mooney, who forgets formulas but who remembers a plethora of old songs that he associates with names (“Carry me back to old Virginny . . . “) and sings whenever he interacts with students – much to the students’ mortification.

Although The Earth, My Butt & Other Big Round Things is technically a young adult novel it can be enjoyed at any age.  An excellent read. I recommend it highly.

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Banned Books Week 2010 Begins Sept. 25; Plan to Celebrate

Banned Books Week 2010 begins Saturday Sept. 25 and runs through the following Saturday, Oct. 2. I encourage every reader and writer – every citizen, in fact – to celebrate because it gets to the heart of what the First Amendment is all about. To find local events, do a Google search for Banned Books Week in your area, like the events being planned by Indigo Bridge Books in my hometown.

According to BannedBooksWeek.org, “Banned Books Week is the only national celebration of the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. More than a thousand books have been challenged since 1982. The challenges have occurred in every state and in hundreds of communities . . . They object to profanity and slang, and they protest against offensive portrayals of racial or religious groups – or positive portrayals of homosexuals. Their targets range from books that explore contemporary issues and controversies to classic and beloved works of American literature.”

Click here to see a map of book bans and challenges in the US from 2007 to 2009.

To be clear about the terminology, “challenged” means that a book has been objected to, but when it goes before the school board or whoever is charged with considering the matter, it is not removed from the shelves. A “banned” book is one that has been challenged, and the powers-that-be have taken it upon themselves to decide that people should not be allowed to read it and have stripped it unceremoniously from whatever shelves said powers-that-be over have jurisdiction over.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I would be willing to bet that every work of literature – titles that you would instantly recognize – has been challenged or banned by some powers-that-be somewhere at some time for the sole reason that it’s impossible to please everyone.

Some books have been challenged for the silliest reasons. The Harry Potter series is repeatedly challenged because it supposedly  indoctrinates its readers in black magic. There are villains, to be sure, and these particular villains can do some seriously nasty things to their enemies. But the main characters are good people, and they celebrate Christmas, by God. But instead of fighting with their fists or guns as in western sagas, they use magic. It’s a fantasy, for crying out loud. The author, J.K. Rowling, has said she doesn’t know of a single ready who has said, “Oooo, I want to be a witch when I grow up!” (Although, I must admit, being able to point a wand and turn someone into a toad is somewhat appealing; I have a list.)

I’ll climb down of my soapbox now and mention that I’ve had a couple brushes with those who wish to make the world safe and bland by limiting our knowledge and oA Need to Kill, by Mark Pettitur imaginations. Can’t have us using our imaginations; that would be BAD. (Okay, so maybe my pant leg got caught on a nail protruding from my soapbox; I’ll pull it free and jump down now.)

One brush I had with the keepers of morality was A Need To Kill, by Mark Pettit, a true crime book about child killer John Joubert who terrorized Bellevue, Nebraska, in the early 1980s. I didn’t write this book, but I did some fairly heavy editing on it. A local group thought some of the descriptions were too graphic and tried to have it removed from the shelves of ShopKo. I don’t know if they every succeeded. I thought it was kind of cool that a book I’d been involved with was being challenged, and I never followed up on it. Challenging books may be a bad thing, but having a book challenged can be a guilty pleasure for its writer; it’s like earning a merit badge, like having arrived, because he or she is in the company of giants (not real ones, lest some group should challenge this blog post; when I say giants, I mean writers of literary stature).

The other book that ran into some difficulty was October Dreams: A Harvest of Horror, a collection of horror stories by various authOctober Dreams, edited by David Kubicek and Jeff Masonors, which Jeff Mason and I edited. I don’t know if it was formally challenged or banned anywhere, but there were a few indicators that some people were displeased with it:

  • A local radio station was excited to do an interview – until they actually read the book, and then we never heard from them.
  • One lady returned the two copies she’d bought, along with a letter admonishing me for the colorful language used in some of the stories and expressing her hope that the next book we published would be more wholesome.
  • One of my former co-workers was convinced that I was possessed by the devil.

Anyway, find some Banned Book Week events in your area and celebrate. For more information about BBW, check out the American Library Association’s Website.

If you could be any book character, who would it be?

This is a fun question:

If you could be any character in a book, who would it be?

I’ll go firstHuckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. I thought long and hard on this, but my mind kept coming back to Huckleberry Finn. I’m not much of an outdoors dude, and I suppose I could swim–er, dog paddle–well enough to avoid drowning, depending on how rough the water is (actually, before taking a plunge into the Mississippi River, I would be sure to put my affairs in order).  But what’s the point of being a fictional character if you don’t acquire that character’s traits?

Huck is an independent fellow. He’s not afraid to go anywhere and do anything. And he’s very liberal-minded for the time in which he lives. Plus, he doesn’t have many worries – except the possibility of being “sivilized” by the Widow Douglas – and what trouble he gets himself into  he’s pretty confident he can get himself out of.

Now it’s your turn. Who would you be and why?

Writing Fiction: Be True to Your Inner Voice

On most magazines’ Submission Guidelines page, the editor suggests reading a few issues to see what type of stories they publish. While it’s a good idea to be familiar with the magazine to which you’re submitting, sometimes this can be taken too far.

I’m talking about slanting a story to fit a magazine, an editor, or an audience. Early in my writing career I read lots of articles about how to slant stories to fill editorial needs. Many of them suggested dissecting a magazine, taking note of such things as:

  • Preference for male or female characters
  • Age of characters
  • Genre of fiction preferred
  • Profession of characters
  • Length of stories, etc.

Many even suggested taking notes on the percentage of the  magazine devoted to advertising, and what kind of products are advertised. A writer of one of those how-to-slant articles told about how he dissected Good Housekeeping in this way, wrote a story for the magazine, and they bought it.

But I am reminded of the late Richard McKenna, author of The Sand Pebbles. When he was trying to break into print, he decided that he wanted to write for the Saturday Evening Post. He analyzed several copies and started submitting stories. The Post rejected the stories, so he sent them to other magazines. On rejecting the stories, those editors included notes that were a variation of this: “This is so much like a Post story, we wonder that you haven’t tried them.”

As you probably have gathered by now, I’m not a big fan of slanting. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to know a publication well enough so you don’t send a western to a mystery magazine or a science fiction story to a woman’s magazine (unless you know that the woman’s magazine publishes SF). And you do need to take certain things into consideration – don’t send a woman’s romance to a man’s magazine, for instance – but those things are easy enough to see; no heavy analysis required.

One of my objections to slanting is illustrated by the Richard McKenna story. No matter how well you slant a story to a particular magazine, its acceptance is not guaranteed.  There are lots of reasons editors reject stories, and “not being right for us” is only one of them. If your story is rejected you’ll have to substantially revise it before you submit it to the next editor, and the one after that, and the one after that … And that’s a lot of work. It’s also not being true to yourself or your craft.

Which brings me to the most important reason for not slanting – if I jump through hoops to write a story for an editor, I’m ignoring my inner voice, which is screaming: “No! No! That doesn’t make sense. You’ve got to write it this way.” Stories can often be written several ways, but a few of those ways are better than others. You must trust your instinct. The way you write your story must come out of you; it must not come out of an attempt to make it acceptable to a particular editor.

That’s a tough way to go because it may mean that a lot of what you write is not what other writers are writing, so you may collect more than a few rejection slips. But it is how you write your best fiction, by being true to yourself.

Ray Bradbury had an awful time breaking into print. One of the reasons is that he wrote stories his way, which was not the way many editors wanted them. He succeeded because he was a disciplined and prolific writer (he wrote a story a week), and he started selling a story here and there. Soon he developed a following, and readers – and editors – looked for his work. Many of the other pulp writers of the Forties have long since been forgotten, but we remember Bradbury and other writers who were true to their inner voices.

Think of the best stories you’ve ever read. How many of them are standard, run-of-the-mill stuff? I would be willing to bet the stories that stick in your mind have a fresh, a different perspective. And that can only happen when the author is true to himself or herself.

So my advice is to write first, then find a market for what you write. Remain true to your inner voice, and you will be published, and you will write lasting work.

War, by Sebastian Junger: A Review

WARWAR by Sebastian Junger

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is not what you may think it is, namely the “war is hell” theme or “we’re fighting for our country” mantra. War is not a political book. The reasons for the war and whether it is right or wrong, the author says, is left for politicians to haggle over.

Between June 2007 and June 2008, journalist Sebastian Junger made five trips to the Korengal Valley in eastern Afghanistan. He was “embedded” with American troops, meaning that he was “entirely dependent on the U.S. military for food, shelter, security, and transportation.”

The Korengal Valley is a particularly bad place to be in terms of fighting, and the Taliban proved to be an unconventional fighting force.

For instance, the Taliban would pay a teenager $5 to go up in the hills and start shooting at an American outpost. When the Americans returned fire the teenager would put down his weapon and disappear down the back side of the hill. The Americans knew about this stunt, but they had to waste an entire afternoon and lots of manpower to make sure it was a stunt and not a real “firefight.”

The Taliban would also leave weapons lying at various points in the hills. They would walk unarmed through villages – often past American soldiers – up into the hills, pick up the weapons and start shooting.

War focuses on the soldiers, the bond among them, and their thoughts about what they do and why they do it. As I mentioned earlier, the big picture of why we are in Afghanistan, as far as the troops are concerned, is something for the politicians to argue about. They are fighting to that they can go on living and so that their buddies can go on living.

This book shows how war changes people, for better and for worse. It has made me examine my preconceived ideas about our troops, and I highly recommend it for everyone. Those of you, like myself, who have never seen combat will gain a new perspective on war and the men and women who fight.

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Structuring Your Novel: Lessons from Screenwriting

About fifteen years ago I decided to write a screenplay, mainly because I’d never written one before, and it was a new challenge. I immediately set about learning everything I could about writing screenplays. Over the next few years I wrote three screenplays and one teleplay, for The X-Files (I wrote it  for the America’s Best contest; I wrote it for the challenge and never expected to get it produced ).

None of the screenplays has yet been produced (although I’m currently in contract negotiations for one of them), but they’ve been read by a variety of producers including the NBC story department, Amblin Entertainment, and George Romero (producer of Night of the Living Dead)–Romero wasn’t able to use the screenplay in question, but he passed it on to New Line Cinema. Two of them were quarter finalists in the America’s Best contest (one of those was my X-Files script).

One thing I took away from my brief stint in screenwriting was a better knowledge of how to structure my novels. It’s called the three-act structure. Most published novelists probably use the three-act structure, but at that time–even though I’d written two novels, both unpublished–I hadn’t been aware of it. I simply tried to write novels like the ones I liked to read. I realized that my novels would have been a lot sharper had I known about the three-act structure when I wrote them.

To structure your novel in three acts, draw a line and divide it into fourths. The first 1/4th is the first act, the second 2/4ths is the second act, and the final 1/4th is the third act.

In the first act introduce the characters and set up the story. In the second act develop the story as your protagonist struggles toward his or her goal. In the third act the story moves toward its inevitable conclusion (or, if you prefer, the hero’s showdown with the villain).

The crucial turning points (there are others, but these are the biggies) are at the end of the first act and at the end of the second. Each turning point commits your protagonist to an unavoidable course of action.

For example, in the film Salt, Angelina Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who is ready to leave the office when she’s called in to interrogate a Russian spy who insinuates that she also is Russian Spy. This is the first turning point. Instead of going home, Salt must escape the building and evade her pursuers while she tries to find the truth; her life has been changed, and she is committed to this course of action.  The second turning point is when Salt discovers that there is another mole in the CIA and is thrust into a final confrontation with him/her. (Since this is a current movie, I’m doing my best to be vague, and even fudge on some of the details, so as not to spoil the film for any of you who haven’t seen it).

The protagonist winning or losing comes at the climax, after which is the resolution. The resolution ties up loose ends, but make it as brief as you can. If you end the story with the climax, the reader feels like Wylie Coyote–falling off a cliff and smacking face-first into the ground, with an anvil falling on top of him. The resolution should give the reader some breathing time.

I won’t tell you the resolution of Salt; that would give too much away. An example of a resolution that is so long it becomes anticlimactic is Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol. The novel is a great read; however, the book goes on for 40 pages beyond the end of the story. Unless you’re a history or a symbology geek, you could stop reading after they catch the bad guy (and they always do in Dan Brown novels, so I”m not giving anything away) and you wouldn’t miss any important story elements.

The second act can be tricky. You’ll notice that it consumes roughly one-half the length of the story. This is where–to put it in the simplest terms–the protagonist strives to reach his goal, but he runs into obstacles, then he has to try something else and have another go at it. Until the second turning point where something happens or something is revealed that pits him in a final battle with the antagonist/villain.

The best way for you to learn this basic structure is to apply it whenever you read a novel or see a movie. Ask yourself when the protagonist’s situation has radically changed, and you’ll have your first and second turning points. Also, watch how writers ease their readers out of their stories after the climax. Dan Brown, I love you, Dude, but don’t use The Lost Symbol as an example of how a story should end.

Should Writers Use Swear Words in Fiction?

Identity Crisis, by Debbi Mack: A Review

Identity CrisisIdentity Crisis by Debbi Mack

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Identity Crisis follows former public defender Sam (Stephanie Anne) McRae as she works to clear her client of a murder charge which turns out to be anything but simple. The clues lead her into a case involving identity theft, ties to the mob, a fire in a school lab, and revenge.

Sam’s practice doesn’t make a lot of money. She shares an office building–and a receptionist–with an accountant, her car is an old beater that barely runs, she lives in a small apartment and has trouble paying her bills.

I got the impression that her lack of income has to do with her devotion to her clients, who aren’t necessarily corporate climbers. This makes her the kind of heroine we like to root for.

Not only is this a good mystery, but Mack–an attorney herself–is a good writer. Without slowing the story she makes her setting (Maryland during a hot sticky summer) come alive. She uses a few well-chosen words to give substance to the scenes and to the locale. She even puts in details about the accents of people from different parts of the state.

All in all, this is a good read. I highly recommend it.

For more information visit Debbi Mack’s Website.

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Net Neutrality: Keeping the Internet Free

I try to avoid politics on this blog, but occasionally I make an exception when it’s a topic of vital importance to writers. The Google-Verizon deal is one of those topics.

In a nutshell, Verizon is agreeing to give Google priority on its systems over all other Internet traffic. According to the New York Times, the agreement  “could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege.”

If other corporate giants hammer out similar deals–and the Verizon-Google contract is all the precedent they need–it would be the death knell of Net (network) Neutrality. Net Neutrality means that all Websites are treated equally. No Website–from Google with all of its ramifications down to Uncle Joe’s blog on wheat grass–is deemed more important than any other; the users determine the importance of any particular Website.

According to savetheinternet.com: “The consequences of a world without Net Neutrality would be devastating. Innovation would be stifled, competition limited, and access to information restricted. Consumer choice and the free market would be sacrificed to the interests of a few corporations.”

Josh Silver, President of Free Press, writes in Huffington Post that “the [Verizon-Google] deal marks the beginning of the end of the Internet as you know it.” Later in the same article Silver says:

“A non-neutral Internet means that companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Google can turn the Net into cable TV and pick winners and losers online … Ending Net Neutrality would end the revolutionary potential that any website can act as a television or radio network. It would spell the end of our opportunity to wrest access and distribution of media content away from the handful of massive media corporations that currently control the television and radio dial.”

In a New York Times article Edward Wyatt writes:

“Cable and telephone companies want free rein to sell specialized services like ‘paid prioritization,’ which would speed some content to users more quickly for a fee. Wireless companies, meanwhile, want no restrictions on wireless broadband, which they see as a different technology than Internet service over wires.”

If you think this is all abstract and may not affect you,  let’s bring it a little closer to home. Are you a Twitter or Facebook user? If Net Neutrality goes, those applications most-likely would go as well; Google has similar products which would be given priority. Do you blog on WordPress? Google has Blogger, which would elbow out WordPress.

Why is Net Neutrality in danger? According to Silver: “We have a pro-industry FCC Chairman who is terrified of making a decision …  a president who promised to ‘take a back seat to no one on Net Neutrality’ yet remains silent …  a congress that is nearly completely captured by industry.”

Net Neutrality has been called “the first amendment issue of this generation.” It must be protected.

Every writer, reader, and Internet user has a stake in Net Neutrality. For more information and to find out what you can do to make a difference, read the complete New York Times and Josh Silver articles and visit savetheinternet.com.

A Man Called Outlaw, by K.M. Weiland: A Review

A Man Called OutlawA Man Called Outlaw by K.M. Weiland

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I won’t say too much about the plot of A Man Called Outlaw. To do so might give away too much information, and I hate giving spoilers.

This novel tells two stories, thirty years apart, and switches back and forth between them–a few chapters in 1887, then a few chapters in 1858-9, then back to 1887 again. In the end the story-lines merge, and loose ends are tied up.

I hope that’s not giving away too much. But it’s obvious from the beginning that there are two stories going on. I even guessed the big secret long before the ending, but that didn’t lessen the suspense. I was still eager to see how the story played out.

The author does a good job of maintaining suspense, and despite what I thought I knew, it kept me riveted until the end. In addition to the “greedy rancher trying to force the smaller ranchers off their land” plot, the 1887 protagonist, Shane Lassiter, is struggling with his own ethical and moral dilemma. Both problems are resolved in the novel’s explosive conclusion.

Have I given too much away? I’ll shut up now. This is a great read and a good addition to every western afficianado’s library.

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Relics of Repentance–The Letters of Pontius Pilate & Claudia Procula, compiled by James F. Forcucci: A Review

Relics of repentance: The letters of Pontius Pilate and Claudia ProculaRelics of repentance: The letters of Pontius Pilate and Claudia Procula by James F. Forcucci

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are interested in Biblical history and archeology, you’ll like this little booklet. The story leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus is well-known, but then the Bible says nothing more about Pontius Pilate and his wife, Claudia Procula.

In Relics of Repentance, Biblical researcher James F. Forcucci tries to shed some light on events that were overshadowed by the formation of the Christian movement.

Relics is built around A Letter From Pontius Pilate’s Wife, translated by journalist Catherine van Dyke and first published in 1929. The letter is said to have been written by Claudia Procula to her friend, Fulvia, several years after the Crucifixion. The letter fills in some blank spots in the lives of Claudia and Pilate both before and after the Crucifixion.

To flesh out the story, editor Forcucci also has culled from various sources several letters purportedly written by Pilate as well as an excerpt from The Gospel of Nicodemus (formerly The Acts of Pilate).

For more information about Relics, check out http://issanapress.tripod.com/

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Images From A Writing Retreat

From July 16 to 18 I participated in the Nebraska Writers Guild’s annual retreat, Write Across Nebraska (WAN). This year a retreat was held in three locations: Valentine, Grand Island, and Schuyler. I was one of 20 who attended the Schuyler retreat (or the Eastern WAN), which is in the northeastern part of the state, about 68 miles from Lincoln.

The retreat was held at the Saint Benedict Center, a non-profit retreat and conference center, which was established by the Missionary Benedictines of Christ the King Priory. It is primarily used for religious retreats but other groups are welcome.  The mission, which was established in 1934, is built into the side of a hill across the road.

The Center–which is about four miles north of Schuyler–resembles Lincoln’s Southeast Community college but with religious imagery and stained glass windows. There is a lake with a fountain and a statue of St. Benedict in it, benches and tables outside, and a walking path around the lake. Meals were served buffet-style in the cafeteria from 7:30-8:15 a.m., 12:15-1:00 p.m., and 6:15-7:00 p.m., although there was a refreshment area where guests could get coffee and other drinks all day.

There was little to distract us from our writing–no TV or telephones in the rooms, and because of the Center’s location in the hills wireless phone reception was almost impossible from inside the building (although some fellow writers reported being able to make calls from outside). I managed to send a few text messages from my room but that was it.

We didn’t write all weekend. Saturday morning Sally Walker, President of the Guild, and Connie Crow, the Guild’s Secretary, each led a class. I think most of us attended. I’ve been writing for a while (no, I won’t tell you how long, but if you’re motivated you could figure it out by looking at the bibliography on my Website) but I always learn something new from every class I attend, and last weekend was no exception.

Saturday night we had a reading. Everyone who wanted to could read from his or her work-in-progress. Readings ranged from poetry, to memoir, to song lyrics, to fiction. All of it showcased the wide range of talent in the Nebraska Writers Guild. I read approximately the first 750 words of my young adult dystopian novel, working title: Beyond the Wall. It was the first time I read from that novel anywhere.

The rest of the time we spent writing. I wrote 2,310 words more on Beyond the Wall, which actually was toward the lower end of production; some writers wrote several thousand words. But I have an excuse. I wrote in longhand (well, actually I printed because I wanted to be able to read it later), and I don’t write my first drafts at white heat; I am constantly rewriting and revising as I go.

Checkout time was 10:00 a.m. Sunday, but we had the conference room (where we held the classes and the readings) all day. So after we checked out, some of us congregated in the common room for a little final writing.

In all, the retreat was a relaxing and productive experience. If you have an opportunity I encourage you to attend one.

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A Date You Can’t Refuse, by Harley Jane Kozak: A Review

A Date You Can't RefuseA Date You Can’t Refuse by Harley Jane Kozak

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Date You Can’t Refuse is the fourth installment of Harley Jane Kozak’s mysteries involving Wollie Shelley, who is described on the back cover copy as a “serial dater,” presumably because she often ends up dating Mr. Wrong.

Writing is a second career for Kozak, who grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her first career is in acting. Born Susan Jane Kozak she took her stage name from the motorcycle and began her career on a soap opera and eventually appeared in such A-list movies as Arachnophobia and Parenthood.

Wollie Shelley is a greeting card artist. She’s a good artist but not financially successful. To complicate matters, her brother – who is mentally ill and in a halfway house – has been threatened with eviction.

Reluctantly, Wollie (short for Wollstonecraft, after Mary Wollstonecraft, the 18th Century feminist) accepts an undercover assignment from F.B.I. agent Bennett Graham. She is to be a Social Coach for a company called MediaRex. In exchange, Graham promises to make sure her brother is allowed to remain in the halfway house.

A “Social Coach,” as it turns out, is a combination of chauffeur and etiquette coach. Her pupils are visitors from Eastern Europe who must be introduced to American customs. The F.B.I. thinks something nefarious is going on. Wollie’s job is to plant three bugs, each in a specific area of the house, and to report on anything out-of-the-ordinary that might be said or done at the compound.

The story makes many twists and turns on its suspenseful path to a surprise ending. Wollie is endearing as the narrator, revealing much about herself. She doesn’t have the makeup to be a spy – she must even be coached by her friends Joey and Fredreeq on how to lie – but she is committed to taking care of her brother.

The quirky characters whom Wollie coaches provide much of the humor. There is Zbiggo, the burley over-sexed boxer who spends much of his time unconscious and a good portion of the rest of his time getting into trouble. And Felix, who wrote a book called Jesus Made Me Skinny, and is in this country for an operation to remove the folds of skin left hanging on his body when the fat melted away.

Other mysteries in the Wollie Shelley series are Dating Dead Men, Dating is Murder, and Dead Ex. A Date You Can’t Refuse is an excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

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Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali: A Review

InfidelInfidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Infidel is the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, born a Muslim in Somalia and raised in Africa and Saudi Arabia. At the age of 22 she sought asylum in the Netherlands to escape a marriage her father had arranged to a distant cousin she had never met.

She became a Dutch citizen and earned a degree in political science, and in the thirteen years she lived in the Netherlands she fought to open the eyes of the west to the plight of Muslim women, first as a writer and speaker, and later as a member of Parliament.

What is most striking about this book is Ali’s courage in fleeing her family, in chipping away at beliefs she’d once held sacred, and finally in speaking out about the many injustices of a system where everything a people do or are expected to do is dictated by directives written down more than a thousand years ago.

I highly recommend this eye-opening memoir.

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Death of the American Novel? Really?

I’ve always considered writers to be storytellers. If the story had what one of my college professors called “a deeper, hidden, secret meaning,” that was fine as long as it had a proper beginning, middle and ending, as long as it–warning: I’m about to use what some self-proclaimed  literati consider to be a dirty word–ENTERTAINED.

I’ve spent my career wedding entertainment with a “deeper, hidden, secret meaning.” Readers who pick up my stories to be entertained will be satisfied. So will readers who want to analyze them. The two conditions are not exclusive, as critic Harold Bloom seemed to suggest in 2003 when he scolded the National Book Foundation for giving a “Distinguished Contribution to American Letters” award to Stephen King because good literature could not be that popular.

The idea that a story can be meaningful and entertain is not new. Many of the classics, novels that are taught in our schools and universities, were popular.

Mark Twain made lots of money with his books (he had to because he also lost lots of money investing in inventions that tanked). Huckleberry Finn in particular can be read as an adventure story, but for those who want to delve deeper Twain is saying plenty about the human condition.

John Steinbeck had hit the best seller lists before he published The Grapes of Wrath, which not only was popular, but it also rocketed him to the top of many corporate America sh*t lists. In a nutshell, the story was about the crappy treatment of displaced Oklahoma farmers during the Great Depression. For those who want to delve deeper, though, there’s lots of stuff to think about.

For example, the Rev. Jim Casey is a Christ figure. Writers of literature like to put Christ figures into their stories.  When I first read this book for a college English class, I took it a step further. An angry mob beats Casey to death with pickax handles. Pickaxes, before they are separated from their handles resemble crosses…you can probably see where I’m going with this. It may be speculative bullsh*t, but my professor was pretty excited about my analysis.

Other popular novels which also encourage the reader to think are Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an amazing novel considering that it was a first novel and its author was only 23 years old at the time of publication.What’s amazing is not that a 23-year-old could write a novel that is both popular and literary, but that one so young would have such a depth of understanding about the world.

Some more modern practitioners of literary fiction that also is popular are Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife)

A favorite phrase of many English teachers, particularly in high school, is: “What was the author trying to say?” Then they look meaningfully at the class as if expecting some student to pipe up with the “theme” of the novel in one or two sentences. I always hated that phrase. If you want meaning in one or two sentences, open a Twitter account.

The meaning in a story is in the characters, what they say and how they react in different situations. The meaning is in the conflict of the story and in its resolution. The meaning is in the emotions that the writer arouses in the reader.

It is possible for a novel to be both entertaining and meaningful, and some of the meaning will rub off on the reader whether he or she does a deeper analysis or not. For instance, many readers may not get all that business about the Rev. Jim Casey being a Christ figure, pickax handle theory and all, but they will be incensed at the crappy way an uncaring society treats the displaced Oklahomans.

The American novel is not dead, as critic Lee Siegel claimed in a New York Observer article. His reason: because the public no longer talks about books. This is not the Nineteenth Century. We have movies, TV, and video games to talk about as well. And even novels continue to be talked about, although probably not during the series finale of Lost. The Internet provides countless forums for literary discussion. You can also find book discussions on TV, and many communities have organized reads like my hometown’s One Book One Lincoln where a particular book is read and then discussed in small group settings around the city.

So, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the novel’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

For additional reading see: “Literary storm rages as critic Lee Siegel pronounces the American novel dead.”

What the Movies Would be like Without Writers

It has been said–or at least implied–that on Hollywood’s ladder of respect, the screenwriter is one rung below the janitor who cleans the studio. This short video, to paraphrase the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, will give writers a rare gift, a chance to see what the movies would be like without them.

Unconscious Writing: Putting the Subconscious to Work

There are two schools of thought about how writers write:

  • Some writers write complete, detailed scene plans before they put down a single word of first draft; they believe that they are  consciously in charge of every idea and every plot twist in their stories.
  • Others believe that a large part of their work rises up from the subconscious.

I’m a subconscious writer. I believe in letting my subconscious take an active part in my storytelling. This was not always so.

When I first started writing I thought I had total control of my stories. A story I wrote called Be a Man changed all of that. It was a simple story, I thought, about a kid who has an unpleasant experience in swimming class and becomes disillusioned about his teacher. I gave it to one of my former English professors, Bob Bergstrom, to read.

When Bob gave me his critique he launched into an in-depth analysis of the character and what was really happening in the story. I was shocked. I admitted that everything he said was true, but I hadn’t realized it was there. That was a lot of stuff to pack into a 2,300-word story.

I forget how long the idea for Be a Man gestated–tumbled around in my mind–before I put it down on paper. But I do remember that it was about two from idea to writing of Two Coffees. I was at Godfather’s Pizza with a friend. She indicated a table not to far from us and told me about the dude who she’d see when she was in with some of her friends the other night. He’d ordered four glasses of beer, set one in front of himself and the others around the table. Then he proceeded to carry on a conversation with the invisible buddies who, apparently, possessed the other three beers.

As you can see from the story a lot changed from conception to execution. This 900-word story is on my Website because it’s my favorite, particularly because my subconscious was deeply involved in the writing. I discovered this on re-reading the story a few years after I wrote it. I submitted the story three times, and it has been published twice–excluding its online publications.

I believe that even writers who believe in strictly outlining and scene-planning everything are influenced by their unconscious minds whether they know it–or like it–or not. But I don’t think they take full advantage of the powers of their subconscious.

The subconscious needs time to work. It cannot be forced, but it can be nudged. Here are some ways to nudge it:

  • If you’re working on a story problem, sleep on it. Turn it over in your mind, and your subconscious will work on while you’re sleeping.
  • Take a break, sometimes a long break. Your subconscious will continue working even while you are awake, engaged in other activities.
  • Be patient.

How do you know your subconscious is working? Because suddenly, out of nowhere, an idea will pop into your mind, and often it will be better than what you had been thinking of.

The patience part is the most annoying to me because things may not come together as quickly as I’d like, but when the ideas do come they are inevitably much cooler than if I had wracked my conscious mind for solutions. For example, I’m working on a young adult dystopian novel with the working title of Beyond the Wall. The story has changed dramatically in the last couple of months, so dramatically that the title will definitely have to be changed because the wall probably will not exist in a physical sense.

This also is why I have several projects going at the same time; if I need to prime my subconscious to work on one story, I switch to another while my subconscious takes its own sweet time, and I check back regularly to see if some new ideas are coming. I don’t have any trouble switching back and forth between projects. It’s not a bad ability for a writer  to try to develop.

I have always wanted to write a novel or short story fast, in white heat, like some writers (in his book On Writing, Stephen King says that he writes the first draft of every novel, no matter how long, in three months). That would be seriously cool. I’ve tried it on many occasions, but all I succeeded in doing was creating extra work for the garbage collector (or these days, to be politically correct, the recycling dudes).

If that works for you, great. But if you find yourself constantly getting stuck on story problems, instead of whacking at your conscious mind with a sledge-hammer, try gently consigning the challenges to your subconscious for a few days.

Poll: Do You Write by Longhand or Computer?

Writing Short Stories Teaches Discipline

During the first decade of my writing career I wrote short stories as if I had a patent on the form, about 200 of them, and that’s only the ones I have a record of. There were many more that I deemed unworthy of being submitted and took a direct route to obscurity–the trash can.

After that fairly prolific period, I moved into other areas, and my short story writing slowed to a trickle. I wrote two novels (unpublished), three screenplays (not produced), started a publishing company (published five books), and finally became a photojournalist (published more than 3 million words). When I again focused on fiction writing, I concentrated on the novel.

But the other day I came across an interview with a fellow named Stephen King, who is not only a prolific novelist but a prolific short story writer. King said that when writers concentrate too much on novels, they tend to lose interest in writing short fiction. I would add that the short story is a good laboratory for learning discipline.

Every story has a perfect length. College students often want to know how long their assignments are required to be. I had a writing teacher in college who, when asked what length a story must be, said “As long as it needs to be.” A story could be 1,000 words or 100,000 words, as long as it does what you intended it to do. That’s pretty much what King said.

If you are focusing only on novels, you may be missing lots of good ideas for shorter fiction.

For me there are a couple of obvious advantages, not in any particular order,  for writing novels over short fiction:

  • The pay is potentially better, and you will be paid a royalty per copy sold, whereas selling a short story to a magazine is a flat fee (although you may be able to pick up an occasional reprint fee if someone likes your tale well enough to include it in an anthology).
  • You can develop memorable characters in novels; this is the part I like–developing characters with depth and reading stories about characters with depth. In a 5,000-word short story this is an almost impossible task.
  • A novel may be easier to sell, and there are more markets for novels–although this is an arguable point.

Plenty of magazines (including some online mags) buy short stories. Start with Writer’s Digest, which publishes several Writer’s Market directories. You can even subscribe to Writer’s Market online. If you write in a particular category–science fiction, mystery/crime, literary, etc.–there are many magazines that publish those types of fiction. Glimmer Train is one magazine that not only pays well for fiction, but also has several contests each year.

Writing short fiction is more difficult  than writing novels.  You must focus on a single, defining event, and any wasted words or other mistakes will jump off the page. But for those of you who are starting out–and even for seasoned novel-writing pros–writing in the short form will teach you discipline.

In the past ten years I’ve written a total of three short stories, even though I’ve had plenty of ideas that I jotted down for future use. But  the Stephen King interview has inspired me to start writing some of those stories, although I certainly will not neglect my current novel.

To watch the Stephen King interview as well as comments from a couple of other prolific short story writers:

Stephen King

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Ray Bradbury

Review of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The trade paperback edition of Jamie Ford’s debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, hit bookstores on October 5, 2009, and within a week had climbed to number 15 on the New York Times bestseller list. By October 23 it had peaked at number 13. Since then it has remained in the top 30, ranging up and down from the mid teens to the high 20s (as I write this on the first day of summer 2010, it is #27).

An unusual achievement for a first novel, but Hotel is an unusual novel. It is about the relationship between Henry Lee, who is Chinese, and Keiko Okabe, who is Japanese. The story begins in 1986 when Seattle’s Panama Hotel is preparing to re-open after having been closed for more than forty years. The personal belongings of many Japanese families are found in the basement–apparently stashed there when the families are relocated to internment camps during WWII. Henry gets permission to go through the treasures, searching for anything that might have belonged to the Okabe family, but in particular for a recording by a local jazz artist that he and Keiko had shared when they were 12 years old. Although Henry married (his wife has recently died) and had a son, the memory of his first love has always haunted him because they were separated when she and her family were sent to a camp. To complicate matters, Henry’s father despises the Japanese because they are the enemies of China. He makes Henry wear an “I am Chinese” button so that he won’t be mistaken for the enemy.

This is a love story, but it is also about subtle forms of racism. Henry is not accepted by other Chinese kids because he attends a Caucasian school. Keiko is sent to an internment camp although she is third generation American and doesn’t even speak Japanese. The story shifts deftly between 1986 and the 1940s. Ford’s research and writing style make the war years and his characters come alive. Especially poignant is Ford’s depiction of the death of a community after its residents are rounded up and shipped out. An excellent novel. I highly recommend it.

Ford himself is of Chinese descent. His great grandfather, Min Chung, who immigrated to the U.S. around 1865, changed his name to the more western-sounding William Ford. Jamie Ford’s second novel is scheduled for release in early 2011. For more information, visit Jamie’s Website.

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When You Should be Paid for Your Writing, and When it’s okay Not to be Paid

In the documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, in a nearly three and a half minute segment–laced with, as Spock said in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, many “colorful metaphors”–writer Harlan Ellison rants that writers must be paid for everything they write. Everything.

In general, I agree with him. People–sometimes even editors, who should know better–undervalue writers. Isn’t there an old joke in Hollywood that when it comes to power and respect the screenwriter is one step below the janitor who cleans up the studio?

Back in the days when I was doing writing-for-hire work, a fellow wanted me to write his book, for which he magnanimously offered to pay me $100. To write the whole book. That’s one of the reasons I no longer seek writing-for-hire jobs.

Ellison scoffs at the idea of giving away his writing for publicity; publicity, he says, will not do him as much good as cold, hard cash. He’s probably right. Ellison has been writing for more than fifty years and has a respectable track record across several genres, including television. So the publicity value of working for free is negligible, but the cash would buy some groceries.

But for writers at certain stages in their careers, giving away freebies may be helpful. These stages include:

  • Beginners who are trying to become noticed.
  • Writers who are known locally or regionally and are trying to broaden their appeal.
  • Writers who are trying to create platforms, to brand themselves, to become known as an experts of particular subjects.
  • Writers who already have platforms but want to promote their expertise in other areas.

All of the above can be done most effectively on the Web where writers can create their own Websites and blogs, can be guest writers on other blogs, and can comment on blog posts they read. This is a seriously cool time to be a writer; creating a platform is much quicker and easier than before the advent of the Internet. The networking possibilities are virtually limitless.

As I wrote in an earlier post, one of the Four Steps to Building a Successful Writing Career is marketing. When I write for my blog or other blogs or post articles at other sites around the Web, I’m working in the marketing/PR area; the free work I do will eventually pay off in a growing audience for my work.  Writing is an art, and I would write even if I never made a dime, but when I move on to the production step, I’m writing fiction and nonfiction for which I eventually expect to be paid.

For another perspective on being paid for your writing see the blog of novelist Allison Winn Scotch.

Review of True Compass, by Edward M. Kennedy

True Compass: A Memoir by Edward M. Kennedy My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an extraordinary memoir. It held my interest and was a quick read, which is good for a 500+ page book. There are several reasons why this autobiography is so intriguing:

  • It gives a well-rounded look at Ted Kennedy’s life: his family, his schooling, his years campaigning for his brothers, and his own political service.
  • Kennedy writes candidly about the low-points in his life: his brothers’ assassinations, Mary Jo Kopechne, and his divorce.
    He gives a behind-the-scenes look at the Presidents with whom he served, portraits that often differed greatly from their public personas.
  • This is not a kiss-and-tell autobiography, but Kennedy is candid about his experiences and what he learned from his mistakes.

True Compass is a must-read for anyone who has, or is planning to have, children. The first part is largely concerned with how the Kennedy childrenTrue Compass: A Memoir were raised. I’ve seen many times in the media that Joe Kennedy groomed his sons to go into politics. Ted debunks that notion. His parents, he said, emphasized public service but did not dictate to their children how to accomplish that public service. In fact, Joe was surprised when Jack announced that he planned to run for Congress.

The book is full of anecdotes. For example, to illustrate the respect for Joe by his adult children, Ted told of Jack’s visit home while he was president. Jack decided to sleep in on Sunday morning but awoke suddenly when he heard his father’s footsteps coming up the stairs. Knowing that he would be questioned about why he wasn’t in church, he dressed hurriedly, slipped out the back way, and climbed over the fence into the neighbors’ yard. Ted didn’t mention if Secret Service agents were right behind him or if he ditched them, too.

True Compass gives us a good look how things get done in government and how politics has changed over the years. Kennedy tells about good and bad experiences he has had working with both Democrats and Republicans, and he doesn’t use his book as a platform to lash out at people he doesn’t like.

This is a nonpartisan book. It tells the story of an American dynasty and its last patriarch. It is a memoir that should be read, and can be enjoyed, by Democrats and Republicans.

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Review of Sh*t My Dad Says, by Justin Halpern

Sh*t My Dad Says Sh*t My Dad Says by Justin Halpern

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This book is hilarious. The Backstory: Justin Halpern started a Twitter account (of the same title) where he tweeted humorous quotes from his father. He didn’t tweet quotes frequently, but before he knew it he had over 1 million followers and was getting calls from agents. One result was this book, which quickly shot to the top of the New York Times best seller list. The Dad in the title has a potty mouth (one reason I recommend it for adults), but he is an educated man, a doctor who spent his career in research. At the end of each chapter is a list of quotes on various subjects. Each chapter tells a story about a different experience Justin had growing up and what he learned from his dad in the process.

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